Kenya: Still reeling in the aftermath of the Westgate massacre

By Kate Stegeman 4 October 2013

In the aftermath of the Westgate Mall attacks, a delicate interplay between sensitive forensic information, human rights, human stories and the perilous nature of emergency responses hangs in the balance. As more devastating details unravel, Kenyans reflect on what happened that day and on their fear, bravery and fragile hope. By KATE STEGEMAN.

By now, startling, often tragic and at times gruesome images of the events surrounding the Westgate mall terror attack have filled countless newspapers and social media platforms.

In-depth analysis as well as narrative accounts of armed gunmen, scores of victims, frightened people, the strategic use of politicised violence, hostage taking, and camo-clad soldiers have been carried across the world’s media.

There are also more tempered glimpses of less overt hostility – video footage of billowing smoke, scenes of blood-tinged feathers from pillows carried by customers trapped in department stores, abandoned pushchairs and multi-level escalators, of hands in the air.

The Al-Shabaab attack saw the violation of basic human rights as well as instilling fear and a security crisis in Kenya.

As the crisis entered its 12th day, and in the wake of mounting allegations of government bungling, obfuscation and security failures, official state reports conflict with those supplied by the Kenyan Red Cross.

Kenyan political activist, Robert Alai, told the Daily Maverick this week that there are conflicting reports and confusion surrounding the number of people affected by the massacre.

“We still don’t know what to believe about the death toll. The numbers range from 61 to 67 or 69. Bodies are still unaccounted for. Some have been found in hospitals and morgues, but what about other places?” asks Alai.

“Their relatives need answers. Earlier this week official figures of missing people went down to 39, but as government has not been clear, there is still mistrust of numbers, so this may not be accurate”.

The Kenyan government is accused of evading questions about intelligence failings but Interior Minister, Joseph Ole Lenku, has consistently maintained the information is confidential and cannot be released to the public. Earlier this week Lenku went on the record saying that Kenyan police did not have any outstanding missing persons reports, which prompted the anger of many Kenyans.

Amid the unanswered questions and unaccounted bodies, there are also numerous stories of courage and resourcefulness – of Kenyan’s who pushed back against the violence and misleading information plaguing their society.

Robert Mburu is one of those people. He managed to break down barriers, both literal and figurative, in a desperate attempt to secure the safety of his sister, Dorcas Mwangi, trapped inside the mall.

During a telephonic conversation with the Daily Maverick this week, Mburu shared a highly detailed account of his involvement in the siege.

For Mburu, it all started with a confused phone call. At approximately 13:30 on Saturday, 21 September, while inside a bank 130 kilometers away from Nairobi, he heard that his sister had, minutes earlier, made a frantic call, pierced “with screaming and gun shots”, to their mother. She was at Westgate mall.

“I soon realised it was an emergency. I was in a state of panic, I was feeling so helpless and worried about my sister but I still drove my car to the mall as fast as I could,” says Mburu.

“I started getting information from friends [on WhatsApp] that it was a hostage situation… that gunmen were in Westgate, the whole mall was being held up and it someone confirmed… Al-Shabaab were involved”.

En route, Mburu sent a series of SMSes to his sister asking her: “Where are you… are you safe?” It took her nearly half an hour for her to reply that she was. “I texted her back to say ‘Don’t jeopardise your safety, don’t expose yourself… only text me when can’, ” says Mburu.

Once at the mall he ran to the police perimeter at one of the main entrances. “Even though the barricade was 200m away you could still hear gun shots. Ambulances were rushing in. I found my dad and mum and told them she had texted that she was hiding somewhere in Nakumat market,” says Mburu.